Obervations on hip-hop, Iowa City, and the Marketplace

Interview conducted by Erika Hyzer
E.H.: How do you see hip-hop as a creative, unique way of communication or expression?

It's the most unique way to make music because of the technology and methodology used. The way samples are stripped, then deconstructed and put together again in a new context is inspirational to me. Different people take different approaches to hip-hop music and that's a recipe for lasting creativity.

E.H.: What do you use to express yourself?

My bread and butter is old records I find at the Salvation Army or at garage sales. The kind of records deemed unworthy by the general public. I enjoy discovering that off the beat and path antique store with a small section dedicated to used records in. It's a thrill to just thumb through the album covers, searching for something that catches my eye.

Back at the studio, I patiently listen to those records for breakdowns, an isolated instrument, or an open drum loop. I mix and match my library of sounds stored on my computer and build a foundation, maybe call up a musician to drop by the studio to lay down some riffs, then mix it together and see if it all works. 20 years ago making music like this was unheard of! It's a rather odd approach to music production, but it works for me just fine.

E.H.: What was it like getting started in Iowa City?

Tough. About the only thing I had going for me was self-determination and some adequate recording equipment.

E.H.: Where there other people like you in the Iowa City area with similar interests?

Yes, people around here had similar interests. Who doesn't like to record some rhymes, have some fun, and listen to the results? However, I wanted to be serious about the craft. I was committed long term, doing it independently with no illusions of "getting signed" or "making it big." My focus was on artistic control and quality production, really working all aspects of putting out music proper. Not many people around these parts have that type of commitment or drive.

E.H.: What did you learn about releasing CDs on your own?

I knew that running your own production company/record label was going to be risky and time consuming. I learned quickly to be jack-of-all-trades and master of none. Delegate when necessary but always double check. Also, making a list of the week's tasks or jotting down notes became an important ingredient. I'm constantly evaluating, doing research, networking, and gaining knowledge. In the end, it can test your patience. So, I've come to terms with the delicate balance between art and commerce...it's a never ending tug of war!

E.H.: Were there people in the Iowa City area helping you out?

Sure, a couple of people stepped in 'cause they saw the passion. DJ Earl-e took me under his wing about 6 years ago. He was an excellent live DJ and his production style was unlike anything else out there. He gave me lots of tips on how to think outside of the box, and how to approach production with the minimal equipment I had at the time. However, the friendship was short lived, he moved to Long Beach, California a couple years after we met.

DJ Earl-e work'en the turntables

Bob Hall was another, he ran a studio called Precision Noise and he taught me the ins and outs of audio recording, invaluable inside information, he really showed me HOW to listen for details in a mix. He called it "dialing your ears in." Plus, he understood rhythms, it made my job easier.

Bob Hall @ Burning Man 2001, kicking a beat for "Desert Goose"

Vince Woolums was an influence also, he showed me the step-by-step things that needed to be done to put on a successful show. Booking the venue, designing the flyer, organizing the talent, promoting the event, and general preperation before the show like sound check, guest lists, and stage lighting.

Vince Woolums steps out the ride

E.H.: Are there many hip-hop shows around here?

I'd say about twice a month there is a good hip-hop show.

Q: Do many people show up?

Unless the act is really getting a good push on college radio, has some articles in hip-hop publications, or has a following due to an internet buzz, not really many people show up. There is one good thing that I've noticed at every show however, always different faces! So, that's a positive.

E.H.: Is it hard to book a show in Iowa City?

It's not hard to book at show, the hard part is getting a nice size crowd to show up! I've brought in some real good underground hip-hop acts that have a following in Chicago, but that doesn't translate at the gate in Iowa City! I've lost a few hundred bucks in the year 2003. (laughs)

E.H.: Is there much to do around here if you're into hip-hop?

There might be too much to do, or should I say, to many distractions are at work. Students have school, homework, a part-time job; they might have a girlfriend, or a keg party they got invited to over the weekend. People have options like cable television, video games, DVDs, & internet access. Let's face it, students are busy.

E.H.: Do you feel like hip-hop in Iowa City at any point has been more popular than now?

It's a wash. Sure, I hear more hip-hop than ever at the clubs, at private parties, and in cars rolling by downtown. Yes, more people are rocking the baggy clothes, skull caps, and hooded sweatshirts on campus, but what does that mean?

Example: You'll have a grip of people that will drive to Cedar Rapids or the Quad- Cities and drop 50 bucks to see Snoop Dog, Ja Rule, or Eminem, and the arena is packed with thousands. But, a majority of those same fans wouldn't think of seeing some underground group locally they never heard of or seen on the radio or on TV. You'll have a grip of people purchasing the likes Jay-Z, Outcast, and Nelly and they wouldn't think of checking into anything else. If it's not on B100 FM or BET who cares!

E.H.: Do you see the scene growing?

The one thing Iowa City has on lock down in the state of Iowa, it's the place to see quality underground hip-hop acts that tour the U.S. club circuit. So, the seeds have been planted. I'd like to think I had a hand in that 'cause I've either brought in, or recommended to the booking agents, about all of the acts that have came through Iowa City the past 5 years. You can get up close and personal and see'em at the Green Room or Gabe's.

E.H.: How do you feel about mainstream hip-hop?

Generally speaking it's ridiculous. Hip-Hop in the mainstream is based on first week sales, how many units were sold for the year, flashy videos, and all that mess. Emphasis isn't placed on artistic merit or integrity. It's Hip-Pop with no redeeming social value at all. There is a hint of class struggle, but it boils down to mindless dance music with this twisted image of materialism and sexual objectification.

E.H.: Is there any connections between your work and the bigger mainstream world of hip-hop.

Paths cross all the time. For instance, I've recorded a track with DJ Vadim, not a household name as far as hip-hop artists go, but he's certainly more popular than Tack-Fu! When you start to work with mid-major label artists like that, you're only about two degrees of separation from the mainstream. So, if my stuff catches on with a broader audience, that's great! But, my only concern is putting out quality music.

Erika Hyzer is a journalism major at the Univerisity of Iowa.